The Virginia House of Delegates voted Monday to end tenure-related job protections for public school teachers, a measure Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has pushed this year as part of his agenda to improve public education.
Several Republicans crossed party lines to join Democrats in opposing the bill, which has drawn intense resistance from labor leaders and their allies. The measure passed, 55 to 43.
Now the fight moves to the Senate, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Members are expected to vote on the bill Tuesday, and the decision is expected to be close.
“A good education starts in the classroom, with great teachers instructing our children,” McDonnell said in a statement praising the House. “Here in Virginia, we are fortunate to have a world-class educational system with world-class teachers. However, until we can guarantee every student in Virginia a quality education, our work is not done.”
The education bill was one of a flurry of bills that passed the House and Senate on Monday as the General Assembly nears the crucial midpoint of its 60-day session when the two chambers have to vote on their own bills.
Virginia teachers spend three years on probation and then receive “continuing contracts,” which guarantee that teachers receive due process hearings before they are dismissed.
Under McDonnell’s proposal, probation would be extended to five years and continuing contracts, which are almost always renewed, would be replaced with three-year contracts.
At the end of every three years, a teacher could be let go for poor performance or any other reason.
The new rules would apply only to current first-year teachers and those hired in the future. Teachers with more time in the job would be allowed to retain their continuing contracts.
Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) spoke in favor of the measure on the House floor Monday.
A high school teacher by trade, Cox offered tales of colleagues who used the same tired lesson plans year after year and couldn’t get control of their classrooms.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think there aren’t mediocre teachers and bad teachers,” he said. “We are naive if we think public education is perfect.”
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax) said Republicans who are criticizing Virginia’s teachers have defended the state’s schools as excellent during recent debates over how much to spend on K-12 education.
“When we’re talking about funding education we’re doing just fine,” Plum said, “and now when we’re talking about teachers, suddenly things aren’t going so well.”
Since 2008, the General Assembly has cut more than $1 billion for schools from the biennial budget, according to the Virginia Education Association. Democrats are pushing for a more generous state contribution.
In recent years, some states have chipped away at tenure protections in an effort to improve teacher quality. Some have made tenure more difficult to earn; others have made it easier to lose.
Virginia’s tack effectively eliminates tenure, giving administrators the power to recommend that a teacher’s contract not be renewed without having to provide a cause. That goes too far, critics say, and leaves teachers vulnerable to losing their jobs for no good reason.
“We don’t want an incompetent teacher in the classroom — no one does,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “But we also don’t want good teachers to be eliminated arbitrarily.”
Also on Monday, the House gave preliminary approval to a pair of bills that would require sheriffs and arresting officers to inquire about legal presence when a person is “taken into custody” at a jail or arrested.
The House also unanimously passed a bill requiring insurance companies that exclude coverage for earthquake damage to provide written notice of that and notify property owners that the insurance may be available for additional cost. The bill comes after a forceful earthquake in Louisa County in August left many home and business owners realizing for the first time that they would not be covered. The Senate had passed its version earlier by a vote of 32 to 6. The bills were introduced on behalf of McDonnell, and will be sent to him for his signature.
The Senate gave preliminary approval to require all convicted drunk drivers — from the first offense on — to pass a breath test before their cars would start. Currently, Virginia requires an ignition interlock device only upon the second or subsequent offense, or when the offender’s blood-alcohol level exceeds 0.15 percent.
The Senate also voted in favor of amending the Virginia Constitution to make it harder for government to seize private property by eminent domain.
Inspired by a U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld the right of governments to take private property for economic-development projects, the measure won approval in the House and Senate last year. It ran into bipartisan opposition in Senate committees this year, after concerns were raised that it could prove too costly. Once it reached the floor Monday, it passed, 23-17. The bill passed the legislation, which would have to be ratified by voters before taking effect, in a preliminary vote Monday.